Thursday, 17 April 2014

Help Wanted, Apply at The Publishers' Quarter, Yellow City, Yoon-Suin

So, as some of you will know, I've been working on releasing my Yoon-Suin campaign setting for a considerable period of time. It’s gone through several iterations. It’s now more or less finished, although there is a bit of t-crossing and i-dotting left to do, and I need to get some friends to look it over to check for errors.
There are extensive posts regarding Yoon-Suin on my blog, which can be read through here.
If you just want a brief understanding of the project itself you could limit yourself to this post, and this post.

The core conceit is that somebody in possession of the Yoon-Suin almanac should be able to generate their own version of Yoon-Suin with the use of its extensive collection of random tables and snippets of information. As well as rules for character generation (featuring slug-man and crab-man classes) and a bestiary of 50+ monsters, it has chapters devoted to discrete areas of Yoon-Suin (the Yellow City and Topaz Isles; Lahag and the Hundred Kingdoms; Lamarakh and Lower Druk Yul; and Sughd and the Mountains of the Moon). It also has a number of appendices with optional house rules including rules for generating teas and opiates, quick-and-dirty trade rules, and generators for names and so forth.

It is, basically, a tool-box and grab-bag for brainstorming a version of Yoon-Suin for yourself: if you want to set a campaign in the Yellow City, or the oligarchies of the Mountains of the Moon, or the wastes of Lower Druk Yul...You can do it, and the almanac will give you to the tools to do so. 

The project needs, now, three things, in order of importance, mostly stemming from my lack of artistic talent.

1)      Maps. Each chapter for the different regions of Yoon-Suin needs to have two hex-maps with geographical features only. This is to allow a given DM to take an area of that region and make it his own with plug-and-play hexes and lairs, ruins, settlements, etc. that he generates with the relevant random tables and places on the geographic map to his taste.
2)      Layout. I am shit at this. At the moment the whole thing sits in about 7 word documents that I plan to just save as PDFs and bundle together in a zip file. Somebody who can make it look a bit professional would come in most handy.
3)      A cover, and maybe interior art. At the moment there is no art. I kind of like the austerity of mere text and tables. But I recognise that’s a bit pants. And at least one pretty picture to be the cover would be great. 

So, if you are interested in contributing to one or more of those needs, please get in touch and we'll talk the matter over. My email address is jean DOT delumeau AT gmail DOT you know the rest. We can discuss payment; I should warn you, however, that my current thinking is to release the whole thing either for free or for a nominal fee; I’ll probably end up charging £0.99 or something, with the pot to be split up between the art and layout contributors, although I am also thinking about an additional lulu option.  

Also, feel free to spread the word amongst acquaintances, associates, your crew, etc.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

ROYG Encounters; Or, I May Have Finally Cracked; Or, I Spent 2 Hours on This When I Should Have Been Working

So let's talk random encounters.

Take a look at this bad boy. You may have to click to enlarge.

Yes, it looks like arse. Doesn't matter. Pay attention.

The ROYG Method

Roll d8+d12 for the monster type as normal.

Then, you have the illusion of choice. Roll either a d4, d8, d12 and d16 (or d20 and ignore results 17-20); or roll another 4d4. Consult the attractive (?) colour chart as required. The general principle here is that red is bad for the PCs, amber and yellow are progressively less bad, and green is nice. Strict rules of interpretation are not provided - the aim is to give the DM's brain something to riff on, rather than providing absolute set-in-stone laws of interpretation. 

The d4 result (or d4:1) tells you the type of terrain in which the encounter occurs, depending on the 'host terrain' of the hex. If it's a mountain hex, as the above table is keyed for, red will mean extremely steep cliffs or scree, amber will mean a steep-sided valley with the monsters at the top, yellow will mean a shallow valley with monsters on the high ground, and green will mean favourable conditions (such as the PCs being on high ground in a shallow valley). 

The d8 result (or d4:2) tells you the rough proximity of the enemy. Red meaning right there in plain sight (the distance will be greater on barren mountain terrain than in a jungle, obviously), amber in the distance, yellow the monsters have spotted the PCs' trail but not the PCs yet, and green the PCs have spotted the monsters' trail but not the monsters yet.

The d12 result (or d4:3) tells you what the monsters are up to. Red could mean hunting, on the warpath, etc. Amber could mean patrolling without active hostile intent (though that will change if the opportunity arises). Yellow might mean looking for something, foraging, etc.. Green, idling, or looking for somebody to talk to.

The d16 result (or d4:4) gives a complication. Here, the DM has even more leeway to use his imagination. It might be suggested that red means another monster happens along. Perhaps a green result means that the monsters are actually long dead and only their campsite or remains still exist. 

So, for example, on my d8+d12 I got a 14. The result is a ranger(s).

What are these rangers up to? d4 result for terrain gives 3 - yellow. A low valley, with the PCs towards the bottom, with a few rocks here and there for cover. The d8 result for proximity gives a 7. Another yellow. The rangers are in the distance - just about visible, or potentially so. I would then roll for surprise, assuming the encounter distance is, say, d6x200 yards. The d12 result for task gives a 6. Amber. They're roaming around their territory, checking to see nobody is bothering the local wildlife - possibly acting on information that there is a group of hunters in the vicinity (who they might mistake the PCs for). The d16 result gives a 9. Red. A complication. Hmm..... Okay, there is a  group of NPC hunters in the vicinity and they have spotted both the rangers and the PCs. 

Any questions?

Monday, 14 April 2014

It's Cyberpunk, Jim, But Not As We Know It

I spent part of yesterday afternoon chatting with Nate over Skype making a podcast. (Watch this space for further details.) For part of the conversation, at least, we talked Cyberpunk 2020. We didn't get very far. But it reminded me of a post I wanted to write.

Players of Cyberpunk 2020 and similar games (Shadowrun, Cyberspace, etc.) will be familiar with the humorous anachronistic visions of the future which they entail. One option is to embrace this. I ran a game of Cyberpunk 2020 for a couple of months two years ago, with the conceit that the 1980s vision of the future had actually come to pass - there was still a Soviet Union and a Cold War, the Militant Tendency were still in charge of Liverpool City Council, and you had to long on at Dataterms(tm) to use the internet.

Truth is always stranger than fiction, though. Consider the fact that, as these articles from the Economist imply, food smuggling, waste disposal and wildlife smuggling, rather than drugs, might be the wave of the future:
According to the FLARE Network, an international group of campaigners against organised crime, criminal groups in Italy make around €14 billion a year from being mixed up in agriculture. In some parts of the country mafias control food production and distribution; Franco La Torre, FLARE’s president, says they also enrich themselves through fraudulent claims on EU agricultural funds. Increasingly strict regulation of waste disposal has created another profitable opportunity for organised crime in Europe—particularly, according to Europol, for the Italian Camorra, ’Ndrangheta and Cosa Nostra.

It's not only that there's easy money to be made, it's why get involved in drugs when it can land you a stiffer sentence?:

Some crooks who once focused on drugs have switched to food, says Chris Vansteenkiste of Europol, partly thanks to the falling profitability of the former. The proportion of Britons reporting having taken drugs in the past year dropped from 11% in 1996 to 8% in 2012. Not everyone is a junkie, but everyone buys food and drink. Stagnant wages and unusually high inflation since the financial crisis have increased people’s hunger for bargains.  
Perhaps most important for crooks, humdrum crime is safer. Penalties for hawking counterfeit biscuits are considerably lighter than those for smuggling drugs or guns. For some intellectual-property theft, such as ripping off DVDs, criminals might face ten years in prison, says Stuart Shotton of FoodChain Europe, a food-law consultancy. If there are no fears about safety, he reckons that six months is more likely for crimes involving food.

Smuggling counterfeit biscuits may not be as sexy as the latest illegal cyberware or "stimsense" or whatever, but is in its own way even more cyberpunk. Imagine a future in which perpetually low interest rates brought on by crippling national and private debt have caused inflation to rise to 25-50%. Wages can't keep up - or, at least, the wages of the ordinary man on the street can't. The rich, who live in their isolated compounds, they're fine. But the 'squeezed middle', desperate to fight off falling living standards, increasingly turn to contraband food, drink and cheap knock-off goods smuggled from the wealthy futurescapes of South Korea and the Philippines.

Meanwhile, the rich are after their own contraband: bored by readily available drugs (which by now have been totally decriminalised) and the constant availability of user-specified bespoke porn, they have turned to exotic animals to display their wealth. The existence of strict environmental regulations only make it that much more exciting to be able to take your pet Hyacinth Macaw to the pool party at the nearby K-Pop starlet's rooftop apartment. You've heard the mayor's daughter is bringing her latest find - a mountain gorilla, fresh from Rwanda. They're going to make it fight a puma. It's going to be a blast.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Random Poisons

A method for randomly generating poisons that I drew up this morning. This takes its inspiration from Table 5.1 in the 2nd edition AD&D DMG, though is extensively rejigged. In the 'effect' column, the first effect is on a failed save; the second is what happens after a successful save. (It never made any sense to me that a successful save should be "no effect" - something tells me that if you get stung by a box jellyfish you know about it even if you survive.)

Notes on Effects

Paralysis: The character is completely immobile and loses all control over his muscles. He is, however, flexible, and can be moved around as required.

Debilitation: The character is critically weakened by excruciating pain, lethargy, or horrible bowel movements, though not in such a way as to prove life-threatening. All the character's ability scores are reduced by half with adjustments to AC, to hit rolls, etc. made as necessary. Character moves at 1/2 movement rate and always acts last in the combat round. Character does not heal lost hit points during the period of debilitation.

Slow Sickness: The character has a long-lasting illness that gradually saps his strength through vomiting, diarrhea, swelling, etc. Character loses 1 point of CON every day for 2d6 days. If his CON is reduced to 2, he dies. If the 2d6 days expire and he still has a CON score, he regains CON at a rate of 1 per day. All the effects of debilitation apply for the 2d6 day period.

Quick Sickness: As above, but the illness is more severe and sudden in its effects. Character loses 1 point of CON every hour for 2d6 hours. If his CON is reduced to 2, he dies. All the other effects of slow sickess apply.

Death: The poison causes cataclysmic seizures, brain haemorrhage or equivalent effects which are impossible to survive. Character dies within d6 minutes. On a successful save the character loses the number of hit points stated over the course of d6 minutes, but survives if he has hit points remaining.

Insanity: The poison alters brain chemistry, permanently. Roll a d4 to determine insanity type: 1 - Narcolepsy (must save versus poison at the start of combat; failure means the character falls asleep); 2 - Paranoia (CHA reduced by half); 3 - Multiple Personalities (PC develops a second personality; each day toss a coin to determine which personality is in control that day - each personality has no memory or awareness of what happens when it is dormant); 4 - Lunacy (PC becomes utterly deranged and is under the control of the DM as an NPC).

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Mapping New Troy and Faerie

[This is a continuation of a project detailed in previous posts here.]

This is the basic map of New Troy, explained in brief in this post. Those readers following these posts will remember that this is an area 15x10 miles, with the hexes 1 mile in size.

Entering one of the gates, marked on this map by a star, takes you to Faerie, which has the following map. Here, the hexes are 6 miles in size.

The geographical features here are fundamentally the same, but at the same time, different. They are, in essence, a looking glass version of those in New Troy - except in every respect more dangerous, more unusual, more vibrant, just more

Four things have changed. The settlements have been renamed as 'Shees' and are Faerie 'kingdoms'. Thripsey Shee is so named as a tribute to its namesake in the Lyonesse books; Trinovant Shee is a play on 'New Troy'. 

The caves in the North East of the area, which on the mundane New Troy map are the gate to Muspel, in Faerie are the home of the dvergar - much more akin to the Dökkálfar of old Germanic/Norse myth than D&D "dwarves". 

I'm going to start keying in the hexes for New Troy and Faerie in coming posts. 

Monday, 7 April 2014

Rambling Sunday Evening Thoughts on Psionics

Today I was idly perusing the AD&D 2nd Edition Psionics Handbook and wondering what exactly it is about psionics that didn't quite work. Partly it's the complexity - I remember having a devil of a time figuring out how telepathic combat was supposed to work - but mostly I think it's because it isn't at all seamless with what D&D is trying to achieve. Which may seem like an odd thing to say, because D&D has never been Ron-Edwards-Coherent, but what it was during the TSR era was consistent in feel. Part of that came from aesthetics, philosophy of play, and so on, but partly it also came from the rules, and the psionics rules just weren't of a piece with the rest of the game. Instead of the Vancian magic system that existed for mages and the simple number-of-spells-per-day system for priests, instead you suddenly had to start thinking about Psionic Strength Points. Instead of spells being automatically successful, instead psionic powers were quasi-proficiencies which might succeed or fail.

But on the other hand, perversely, psionic powers were at the same time too much like magic. In the final analysis what you could do with psionics was not much different to what you could do with magic, and most of the book was just a big list of different 'powers' which may as well have just been a big list of new spells for wizards. It seemed, for want of a better term, a bit half-arsed.

Which is a shame. What I want in a psionics system is freedom. Whereas having predetermined spells that you have to learn out of a book, or be granted to you by a god, it makes much more sense to me to have a psionics system in which there are much fewer limits - the player is freer to use his imagination in manipulating reality with his mind, which is kind of the point. So instead of a psionic "school" of telekinesis with a limited number of powers, your character just has telekinesis and can do with it what he wants - does he want to fly? Push a tree over? Pick up a rock and fling it? Make the individual atoms in a stick of wood agitate until the wood bursts into flames? Fine, provided he simply makes an appropriate sacrifice. Or, your character has clairsentience - this means he can practice clairvoyance or clairaudience, stretch his mind into the future or past, see behind a wall into the next bedroom or see what is happening a continent away. Again, provided he makes an appropriate sacrifice.

What's an appropriate sacrifice? Since hit points measure physical and mental strain, simply reduce the psionicist character's hit points according to the 'strength' of whatever he's trying to do. Fling a rock? 1 hp. Move a mountain? That's more like 50. 

Monday, 31 March 2014

Under The Skin and The Need for Real Humans

I watched Under the Skin the other week. It was worth a watch, because apart from anything else it is beautifully well-made: it's like the best put-together music video you've ever seen. But it's ultimately unsatisfactory because at a certain stage about two-thirds of the way through it steadily becomes ridiculous. I wouldn't want to reveal spoilers, but people who've seen it will probably know what I mean. It unravels from being an interesting and creepy film about an alien abducting men for some unknown purpose and turns into, "No, I don't buy it" - chiefly because the way the real people in the film behave is totally unbelievable.

An SF story can have weird aliens and incomprehensible technology and things can happen which are literally impossible, but it is unforgivable when the human beings involved don't act like real human beings would when interacting with those aliens/technology/literally impossible things. Doubly so when you consider that the raison d'etre of most SF is to think about what it means to be human by imagining how humans would behave if we postulate aliens or light-speed or time-travel or whatever.

The same is true of fantasy. I can forgive a fantasy book any sin when it comes to letting imagination run wild. But I can't accept it when what the characters do does not ring true given the circumstances. You can come up with any magical spell or bizarre monster or physical impossibility you like, but the reader knows human beings, so woe betide you if you don't get that right.

In fact, I would go as far as to say that most of the SF and fantasy books I've read which I think have failed have been those in which the behaviour of the characters is not credible based on what I know and understand about human beings and the way they act.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Revisiting Localism

A while ago I mused at some length about 'localism' in gaming. To summarise, I think setting games in your local area, or creating settings that are heavily inspired by your local area, allows you an intimacy, familiarity and level of detailed knowledge that can't be matched with a game set in an exotic/historic/mythological place and era, like Athas, the 13th Century Outer Mongolia of Genghis Khan, Ancient Greece, or New Zealand. Certain elements of setting which DMs struggle with (particularly the little intangible things like weather, scenery, geography, and so forth which give a setting a genuine feeling of place and verisimilitude) come ready-made, baked into your own brain.

I moved up to the North East of England about 18 months ago for a work. It's an area of the country I'd never been to before and, to be frank, I'd never had much intention of visiting. If you're not from the North East of England you tend to forget it exists. It's not on the way to anywhere. The cities are small, mostly poor, and isolated from other conurbations by swathes of sparsely populated countryside full of defunct, slowly de-populating former mining villages. Now and again you watch Match of the Day and the highlights of a Newcastle game come on and you might think to yourself, "Oh yeah, Newcastle. That's a city and it exists." But otherwise it doesn't occupy much of a space in the national psyche. Unless you're a fan of brown ale.

Which is a bit of a shame, because this corner of the country (well, Northumberland anyway) has a lot to offer - incredible scenery, beautiful little market towns and picturesque villages, castles by the dozen, Roman ruins, great local cuisine, hidden treasures like Holy Island - and ought to be a complete tourist trap. Though on the other hand, a large part of me quite likes the feeling of living in one of Britain's best-kept secrets.

I do a lot of hiking and today as I was walking around I started thinking about running a game of D&D incorporating the things that are typical elements of the Northumberland countryside. The game wouldn't be set in actual Northumberland, but would be strongly inspired by it - imbued with it. What might these things be?

  • Sheep. Northumberland is hilly, wild, barren. It's sheep country. In this game of D&D, "orcs" would be gangly sheep-headed humanoids carrying weapons of stone and possessing cruel, ovine eyes with long, horizontal pupils that would remain horribly emotionless as their owner skinned you alive.
  • Gorse. You see a lot of gorse bushes when out hiking. Impenetrably thick and totally unforgiving: hardy survivors of the plant world. In Northumberland D&D, "goblins" would be little people made of wiry, spiny, bitter, nasty, gorse. Waiting in the scrub motionless for hour after hour, day after day, week after week, for a lonely traveller to come by....
  • Wind. Northumberland must surely be England's windiest county. It comes barrelling down from the North Sea bringing the Arctic air with it to chill the very land itself right down to its roots. D&D Northumberland is a place of wind spirits - air elementals, sylphs, tempests, etc.
  • Ghosts. The border between Scotland and England is soaked in blood thanks to century on century of war, border raids, feuds, cattle-rustling and unpunished murder. Northumberland D&D would not have 'Scotland' and 'England' but it would have layer upon layer of violent history - and the ghosts that history had bequeathed.
  • Clerics. Northumberland is sometimes called the "cradle of Christianity" because it is where Christianity first took root in England. Again, Northumberland D&D wouldn't have 'Christianity' but it would have an overabundance of abbeys, monasteries, shrines and other holy places, full of monks singing strange chants and scratching with ink-and-quill in scrolls and weighty tomes for hour after hour by candlelight. At theme might be the conversion of unbelievers to a revolutionary new religion - or the resistance to it.
If you were going to run a game set in your local region, what characteristics would it have?

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Not Dead

Long-term readers of the blog will know that I have a bad habit of disappearing for weeks or months on end without updates. Basically, this is because as well as my day job I have a separate freelancing gig which sometimes results in me being very busy and also creatively and intellectually drained for extended periods. This is one of those periods. I apologise. I'm not dead (quite yet).

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Good Dragonlance Sentences: Time of the Twins, Chapter 1

You may be wondering what has happened to the good Dragonlance sentences project. To be perfectly frank, Chapter 1 of Time of the Twins defeated me. I'd forgotten a number of things about the Legends, as I've read it fewer times than the Chronicles; in my mind it's a better trilogy, but that's if you forget (as I did) about Raf the Gully Dwarf (who can just about count to 3 but can always be relied upon to make 'hilarious' comments at opportune moments), the weird anachronisms (Tika saving up money to 'buy the business' of the Inn of the Last Home), the clumsy internal dialogue ("He knew me better than I know myself. He knew of the chaos that raged inside my soul. He knew I had a lesson to learn." Because that's how people actually think.) and the comedy that isn't funny ("'...I was...busier than a draconian drill sergeant!' That always got a laugh." Why?).


That's not to say that the writing isn't functional. It draws you in. You want to know what happens next. Like Dan Brown, I'm quickly remembering, Weis & Hickman have a great talent for never allowing the ending of a chapter to resemble anything like a conclusion. So you are lead inexorably onwards, like a boulder in full flight down a mountainside, chapter after chapter, heading ever lower and lower, unable to stop yourself, yanked on by the force of Dragonlance gravity, until you plough into a farmhouse and vineyard somewhere in the North of Italy.